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Christ's Feast With The Church
By Laurence Hull Stookey
Abingdon PressCopyright © 1993 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
CENTRAL MEANINGS BEHIND THE MEAL
Eating and drinking are not only necessary to life, but also in human societies most commonly they are communal activities. Human beings enjoy eating and drinking together—hence the prevalence of those experiences known as banquets, parties, and even regular household meals. The English words companion and company both are formed from two Latin roots meaning "those who share bread" with each other. Persons who regularly must eat alone often report diminished enjoyment of their food, and they sometimes suffer poor nutrition for reasons that have nothing to do with economics. There is simply less incentive to cook a complete meal for one person or to eat a balanced diet when alone. The desire to be together when eating and drinking appears to be a universal human characteristic.
Furthermore, partaking of food and drink is also a universal way of marking significant experiences. Births and baptisms are marked by dinners and receptions, as are birthdays and anniversaries of all kinds. A wedding without some form of eating and drinking integral to it is impossible to comprehend. In the work-a-day world, many a business deal has been arranged or celebrated over food and drink, and committee and discussion groups of all kinds meet regularly over lunch. At the far end of the life cycle, after the funeral of a loved one, families reconstitute themselves around a table; indeed grief seems somehow lessened by such a community meal. In every culture the importance of communal eating and drinking is evident.
Thus it is hardly surprising that God, who made us and best knows how we are put together, should provide for us a holy meal. Given the misunderstanding in the church for centuries about the meaning of this meal, and given the unexciting way in which it often is conducted, what may be surprising is that we should refer to this meal as a "feast."
As commonly observed, each person at the Lord's Table receives a bit of bread the size of a coin or smaller and no more wine than would fit into a thimble. For reasons that will be explored later, in much Roman Catholic practice the wine is not drunk at all except by the officiating priest. In many churches of varying denominations, the bread is the thickness of cardboard and more resembles a certain kind of food reserved for goldfish than anything eagerly eaten at home, let alone at a party. Even when ordinary household bread is used, often it is neatly cubed in a way that seems designed to make it as unlike familiar food as possible. How can such an odd meal be called a feast?
The type and amount of food and drink offered at the Lord's Table are important considerations, and we will look at them closely in chapter 6. But for now there is a far more important underlying consideration: What we eat and drink in the Lord's name is important in its meaning more than in its form or amount. By inquiring deeply into that meaning—or better, meanings—we may come to a new basis for assessing things, even perhaps God's way of assessing things. We so readily judge the value of something or someone by quantity or appearance, but God teaches us that sounder judgment is based on quality and significance.
Therefore we begin with the message material things can convey rather than with the form of the things themselves. This we do by recalling God's story in the categories of creation, covenant, Christ, church, and coming kingdom; within these categories are biblical meanings behind the feast.
CREATION AS DIVINE COMMUNICATION
The Bible is the story of God's creation on its way to fulfillment in a new creation; for Christians that new creation was inaugurated in Jesus Christ and is already being made manifest here and now, though it cannot yet be known fully. The whole of the first creation is, says Paul, "groaning" for that transformation, which is yet to be. Even so, the continuity between the creation affirmed in the first three chapters of the Bible and the new creation envisioned in its last two chapters is of foundational importance. This connection distinguishes the Christian faith from any system of religion that believes in a separation between the physical and the spiritual, between this world and the next (to use traditional terms, however defined).
If the present world is not God's creation, or if it is hopelessly spoiled so that even God cannot repair it, then physical things are useless as a means of conveying divine love. The existence of sacraments in the Christian tradition points in the other direction; God's grace can be proclaimed through things such as the water of baptism and the bread and wine of the holy meal. This is the case because creation has not been ruined beyond redemption; no matter how much of a mess God's creatures make of things, God, the maker of all, still seeks to communicate through creation itself.
Biblical teaching sees the purpose behind the creation of the universe to have been that of divine self-expression and sharing. God did not create because of some neurotic inner need (divine loneliness, for example). God is complete and full apart from anyone or anything else. But God's desire to share and be made known was the divine motivation for making all that is. Thus the Judeo-Christian tradition affirms that while the world around us can be abused and even destroyed by us, its intended foundational function is to reveal the goodness and love of God.
Eating figures prominently in the Genesis story of creation. God makes ample provision for the man and woman in the garden. They may feast on a multitude of foods; only one fruit is forbidden them. Even when they transgress, God changes the method but not the reality of eating. As a result of their rebellion, human beings will have to produce their food by the sweat of their brow, rather than by simply finding it in easy reach. But they are not consigned to starvation or even a subsistence diet, for one of their children becomes a tiller of the soil and the other a keeper of sheep. God will not take away food as a punishment for sin, though the means of its production may be altered. Food is not merely necessary for human life; it is a good gift from God and thus one way in which we come to know divine love.
Too often Christians have distorted this teaching in one direction or another. On one hand, the physical world is sometimes viewed with suspicion. Then it is believed that "spiritual" people needed to get out of a dangerous captivity to the material world and to find God apart from earthly experience. Thus God is set outside of creation; God and the world are antagonistic to each other. On the other hand, the more popular of the two current distortions sees creation as something good in and of itself without finding in it the self-revealing work of God. Enjoy the world as the world, rather than as a sign that points beyond itself to a creator. In this view, it is not that the world makes it difficult to find God, but that God is not important enough to be sought, if indeed there is a God at all. A theology of sacraments weighs such spiritualism and such materialism in the balance and finds both lacking.
Through the food and drink of the sacrament, God is made known as One revealed by earthly things. Ultimately this is crucial for Christians, for without it no sense can be made of Bethlehem. The world around us neither exists for itself nor is an impediment to spiritual insight. Creation is one lens (though not the only lens) through which we see divine goodness and intention.
This has crucial implications for daily living. Christians share with all others on earth an urgent concern for the welfare of the ecosystem, but for Christians more is at stake even than the continuation of life on the planet. What is most at stake is the continued communication of God's loving purpose through creation. Not only are we capable of destroying the good earth, but we are capable also of frustrating the goodness of God, who created that earth as one means of expressing divine love.
Furthermore, God in creation sought to make that love known to all, not just to some. We humans, in our arrogance, usually take this to mean "all people." But a closer and more humble reading of the biblical stories will suggest that creation is intended to reveal God's love to all created things. The eucharistic meal is about sharing—sharing both with all people (particularly those who are not permitted to see divine goodness because greed has kept God's bounty from them) and with the whole created order.
Human responsibility in relation to creation is suggested by the kinds of things employed in the Eucharist. Bread and wine do not occur in creation. God gives grains of wheat and grapes and soil in which they can grow. But someone must nurture stalk and vine, grind flour and knead dough, and press the grapes. Thus what we eat and drink at the Table of the Lord suggests cooperation between Creator and creature as we are called responsibly to tend, prepare, and share with one another. Needless to say, the bread and wine at the Lord's Table also imply the need to care for the environment, even if this demands self-sacrifice, so that wheat and grapes (which in the Supper come to represent all good things) can continue to flourish.
All this meaning—in a tiny bit of food and drink. But that is only the beginning.
COVENANTAL INITIATION AND INTERACTION
Paul and the writers of the first three Gospels report that in presenting bread and wine to those in the upper room, Jesus spoke of the blood of the covenant. That said far more to the disciples and first readers of the Gospels, steeped as they were in Judaism, than to us who have forgotten so much of our heritage. A covenant in the biblical sense was a deep relationship, never taken casually. Ancient Israel saw God's initiating love for a powerless people oppressed by Pharaoh as comparable (if infinitely more wonderful) to the graciousness of an earthly ruler who out of love for the citizenry established a bond and commitment between monarch and people.
Hebraic theology recognized this covenant-like goodness of God for what it was, sheer grace: "It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord ... chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you" (Deut. 7:7-8).
The covenantal meaning of the Lord's Supper often has been ignored precisely in this regard. Frequently, communion has been seen less as a gift of love from God than as a reward for virtuous living or faithful service. Thus some people are hesitant to receive the sacrament for fear they are "not good enough." This misses the meaning of how biblical covenants come to be initiated.
Still, the instinct about some kind of obligation to God is not utterly wrong. Once instituted, a covenant makes demands on those who have entered it. God called Israel for a purpose: faithful service. When the people misinterpreted the covenant as sheer privilege, things went drastically awry. Then the prophets, recognizing the need for human responsibility, announced judgment and called for repentance, saying of the rebellious people in the name of God:
The more I called them,
the more they went from me;
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them.
But this nurturing covenant love of God was ignored, so that once more the people fell into slavery as God lamented, "My people are bent on turning away from me" (Hos. 11:7). Then the prophet called to the people: "Return to your God, hold fast to love and justice, and wait continually for your God" (Hos. 12:6).
Entrance into the covenant is not merited, but our acceptance of inclusion into the covenant implies constancy and righteous obedience. Eating is often a reminder of this. Annually the Hebrews reenacted the Passover with a highly symbolic meal through which the story of the escape from Pharaoh was experienced again. Most important to the meal were the bread and the lamb.
Unleavened bread was eaten as a reminder of the gracious God who snatched the people out of Egypt with such dispatch that there was not time for yeast to cause dough to rise in the usual manner. And the Passover lamb was a reminder of the original animals' slaughter so that their blood, applied to the door posts of Hebrew homes, would ensure that the angel of death would harmlessly pass over the firstborn of Israel, whereas the firstborn of the Egyptians would die in the wake of Pharaoh's disobedience. Thus in the eating of the Passover meal there was both promise and warning: God is gracious in rescuing the afflicted, but faithless rebellion can bring with it undesired consequences.
Similarly, in at least one kind of covenant-making tradition, a sacrificial animal was cut in two and each half was placed on the ground with a space between. Those making the promises walked between the halves of the sacrifice as a sign of faithfulness, and presumably they were warned thereby that if they broke the covenant promises their lives, like that of the animal, would be required of them. (See Jeremiah 34:19.) While this may strike us as a warning of undue harshness, it emphasizes the point that covenant making is never casual, for broken covenants can bring with them broken hearts and lives. But God's covenant promises, unlike many human vows, can be trusted utterly.
The meaning for our eucharistic participation is this: We cannot earn from God an invitation to the Table of the Lord. But what is done there is intended to show us God's faithful ways of justice and mercy, and what is received there is meant to strengthen us for responsible and faithful service to God.
A covenant as a two-way relationship involving both grace and responsibility is aptly captured in these petitions of a contemporary eucharistic prayer: "Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name." And as this prayer suggests, it is Christ who is at the center of the feast of grace.
CHRIST AT CENTER
Jesus Christ, according to the New Testament, is both the inaugurator of the new creation and the initiator of the new covenant. Christ brings into sharp focus what before was known more dimly. But the work of Christ is understood not only from the past forward but into the future. Thus from Christ emanates the covenant community of Christians called the church; and the new creation, known now only in part, will be known fully only in that event popularly called "the coming of the kingdom" (or more technically, the consummation). Thus there is a symmetry to the five categories we are discussing, with Christ at the center of the axis.
That Christ is plainly connected with eucharistic eating and drinking is evident, but often the understanding of this is too constricted and is taken to refer only (or at least primarily) to the events reported in the upper room on the night of betrayal and arrest. That meal, sometimes called "the Last Supper," must be set in a much wider context, as follows.
Nothing is more plain from the Gospel accounts than that Jesus loved to eat and drink. The charge of his opponents that he was a glutton and a drunkard is not to be taken literally. Nevertheless, Jesus did raise the hackles of conventionally pious people in his time by feasting in the houses of tax collectors, including Zacchaeus (Matthew 9:11ff.; Luke 19:1-9), and others he offended by eating in the home of Simon (called "the leper" in Matthew 26:6 and Mark 14:3, but "the Pharisee" in Luke 7:36). When the crowds who followed him became hungry, he fed them, "the Pharisee" in Luke 7:36). When the crowds who followed him became hungry, he fed them, though they numbered in the thousands (Matthew 14:13-21 and parallels).
Excerpted from Eucharist by Laurence Hull Stookey. Copyright © 1993 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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